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Oregon Tradeswomen: Opening the World of Construction


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Oregon Tradeswomen’s mission is twofold. The nonprofit was founded in 1989 to help women pursue a path to economic independence through careers in construction. Fast forward nearly 30 years: the group is also now developing top talent to help fill construction's current labor shortage. 

Mary Ann Naylor, communications and marketing director for the organization, says the industry is becoming increasingly more open-minded about women entering the field of construction and are even welcomed as candidates to fill the labor gaps. 

“Traditionally, women have been overlooked,” Naylor explains. “There's an idea that women aren’t interested in the job. We hear that a lot— 'are women really interested in careers in construction?' And we say, "‘Yes, they really are.’”

"We hear that a lot—'are women really interested in careers in construction?' And we say, "‘Yes, they really are.’”

While the industry is generally more open with construction companies actively recruiting women, there are still some outdated views that women may not be physically strong enough to do the work. Naylor says the claim is untrue and it’s a mindset Oregon Tradeswomen has set out to change.  

“There are thousands of women already doing this work,” says Naylor. “I think that because of the worker shortage, and because so many of those traditional pathways to recruitment have not proven fruitful, employers are more willing to look outside of what they traditionally would have considered their ideal worker.” 

Building a Tradeswoman 

Oregon Tradeswomen offers several programs to get women career ready for various construction jobs. The organization partners with local construction companies, trade groups and others to carry out its mission. 

The flagship program, Trades and Apprenticeship Career Class, is an eight-week pre-apprenticeship course that combines classroom instruction with hands-on building activities and visits to construction sites and apprenticeship training programs. 

The class serves as an overview to the industry. More individualized skills in specific construction segments are developed later, during apprenticeships. 

“The whole essence of the program is not to prepare anyone for one specific career path. It provides a general career preparation so that they can go on to be successful in any apprenticeship that they choose,” she says. 

Oregon Tradeswomen also hosts an annual two-day career fair that includes workshops, hands-on activities, and exhibits to educate and inspire women to consider a construction career. 

“Our annual career fair is very eye-opening to women,” Naylor says. “They're like, ‘I had no idea.’ Lots of people, male and female, don't know about the different careers in construction. But there's something very moving when women have an opportunity to talk to other women who are already successful in that career.”

“We get lots of evaluations from the girls, and they're like, ‘It was so fun to do things I only see guys do.’”

The second day of the career fair is open to the public, including men and women. However, the first day is designed for middle and high school girls to learn about the field. 

“For those girls, these are activities that they've never done before and were maybe afraid to try,” Naylor says. “We get lots of evaluations from the girls, and they're like, ‘It was so fun to do things I only see guys do.’”

Each year, Naylor estimates that Oregon Tradeswomen reaches about 5,000 women, whether they are seeking information about the pre-apprenticeship program or attending the career fair. 

Win-Win for Participants & Community

Along with training and career exposure, Oregon Tradeswomen also advocates for fair and equitable hiring practices and healthy, positive work environments for women in construction through its TOOLS program, or Tradeswomen Organized for Outreach, Leadership and Support. 

Naylor says the group’s advocacy extends beyond gender-related issues to those affecting the community. 

“We want the money to stay in our own community versus having contractors pulling other workers from out of state to do work,” she explains. “But, above and beyond those kinds of pieces, we are developing a policy platform so that we can advocate for policies to support a better structure for construction companies to recruit and retain women.” 

Construction can offer a variety of economic benefits, including competitive salaries, benefits, and debt-free career education.

Construction can offer a variety of economic benefits, including competitive salaries, benefits, and debt-free career education. Plus, Naylor says, most skills are transferable, so workers can often get jobs anywhere. Then there are the less tangible benefits, like self-confidence and a sense of satisfaction that come with construction jobs. 

“Our mission, ultimately, is to help build and strengthen the community, and we do that through helping women have economic stability,” Naylor explains. “The average annual income of women who come into our program is less than $12,000, and about a third of our students are mothers. So, (economic stability) is a big one.” 

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